A funeral, a wedding, and a vigil—for many in the clergy, they’re all part of a month’s mundane ministry. Not so for The Most Rev. Michael Curry. In just the last 40 days, the leader of the Episcopal Church has mourned at the funeral of a former First Lady, sermonized at the wedding of a prince and a celebrity, and led a vigil opposing a sitting president. His passionate preaching from each of these prominent pulpits—in the case of the royal wedding, before a televised congregation of nearly 2 billion people—has catapulted the little-known minister from Chicago’s West Side and Carolina’s backcountry onto the world stage. To the powerful in the pews and in the news, he proclaimed the “power of love” to, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “make of this old world a new world.”
As an Episcopalian, I’ve watched Bp. Curry’s ascent with pride. Three years ago, he made history as the first African-American elected Presiding Bishop, a milestone in the denomination’s journey from a sanctuary for slaveholders two centuries ago to an ark of diversity today. Given Bp. Curry’s unapologetic embrace of the Jesus movement, his bishopric also signaled a welcome jolt of evangelism in traditional mainline Protestantism. And his invitation to preach at the royal wedding in the Chapel of St. George, despite the Episcopal Church’s estrangement from the Anglican Communion, testified to the power of love to heal wounds and bridge divides.
At Windsor, he spoke of “the power of love to lift up and liberate…to show us the way to live.” He imagined that “when love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields…to study war no more.” In Washington, at the vanguard of a vigil of progressive faith leaders united under the banner of “Reclaiming Jesus,” he sounded a similar theme. “Love your neighbor. Love your Democratic neighbor. Love your Republican neighbor… Love the neighbor you like and the neighbor you don’t like.” And on both occasions, he quoted the gospel according to Matthew to relate Christian theology to Christian ethics. “On these two, love of God and love of neighbor, hang all the law, all the prophets,” Bp. Curry professed.
By speaking love to power, Bp. Curry exemplifies the prophetic religion extolled by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. “It is the genius and task of prophetic religion,” Niebuhr writes, “to insist on the organic relation between historic human existence and…the transcendent.” Amos of the Hebrew Scriptures was a favorite of Niebuhr’s, a prophet Bp. Curry borrowed from in his wedding remarks as well: “When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream.” In his time, the prophet Amos challenged the powers that be to check their pride and seek justice for all peoples. Bp. Curry does the same today.
But missing from Bp. Curry’s message is an appreciation of sin, its persistence and its power to corrupt human relationships. His is a prophecy filled with hope, but lacking humility. And in this, he bears false witness to our fallen world. Love is indeed “stronger than death,” as he claims, but death is also the wages of sin. The power of love in this life is limited by the self-pride and self-interest that inheres in every human heart.
This epiphany shaped the theology of Niebuhr. He also was a man of the cloth and of the Left who eventually parted ways with the liberal churches of his day to found the school of Christian realism. In his An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Niebuhr evokes the imagery of the crucifix to contrast the vertical of Christian theology—the relationship of man to God—with the horizontal of Christian ethics—the relationship of man to his fellow man. These axes are not parallel, as Bp. Curry suggests, but perpendicular. It is the task of a statesman, if not a churchman, to discover the diagonals, the lines connecting the perfect and the pragmatic.
In the international arena, the just war tradition draws such diagonals. Its ethic is neither wholly vertical in its perfectionist insistence on pacifism, nor wholly horizontal in its pragmatic capitulation to a realpolitik reality. The moral crux of the tradition lies in its requirement for right intent, a just war criterion often overlooked. Deadly force is conscionable for a just cause, but only if the intent of the legitimate war-making authority is grounded in love—for neighbor, even for enemy. In an imperfect world, “justice is the instrument of love,” Niebuhr argues. The resort to force to do justice is an act of love if committed to justice.
President Barack Obama, a contemporary of Bp. Curry and a fellow Chicagoan, grasped this critical moral insight. In his seminal Nobel Peace Prize speech, arguably the most fulsome defense of the just war tradition by any American president, Obama similarly quoted Dr. King in saying that “violence never brings permanent peace.” But he added that “as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [his] example alone.” “To say that force may sometimes be necessary,” Obama lamented, “is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
In attempting to translate his prophecy to policy, Bp. Curry advocates for a perfectionist internationalism divorced from the realities of power, division, and sin that mark all human relations. In the “Reclaiming Jesus” manifesto that he and other liberal clergy unveiled during their White House vigil, Bp. Curry argues that “we should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.” The manifesto goes further by rejecting the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy as “theological heresy.” Although this policy is certainly open to criticism, especially regarding its seemingly ethnocentric understanding of Americanism, its implicit recognition of the responsibility of leaders to prioritize the protection of their national neighbors is hardly heresy.
Nevertheless, Bp. Curry’s eloquent testimony to the power of love and the ideal of pacifism is a welcome curative to the cynicism infecting our politics today. “Religious pacifism as a symbolic portrayal of love absolutism in a sinful world has its own value and justification,” Niebuhr writes. “A church which does not generate it is the poorer for its lack.” The Episcopal Church has generated a powerful and persuasive symbol in its charismatic leader. We should heed Bp. Curry’s prophecy, if not his policy.